Myriam J.A. Chancy on the Intimate Power and Purpose of Fiction
This Week from the Reading Women Podcast
In this week’s episode, Kendra talks with Myriam J. A. Chancy about her book, What Storm, What Thunder, which is out from Tin House.
From the episode:
Kendra: One of the things that struck me while reading about What Storm, What Thunder is that you mentioned that you like to look at moments in history that you think might be misunderstood or need reframing or something like that. And I thought about Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward and how she took that event of that hurricane and brought it down to a level of people. So for you and What Storm, What Thunder, how did that approach, I guess, play out for you?
Myriam: I think this is what fiction can do best. You know, I mean, I think this is why I really . . . I enjoy writing novels because I think it allows you to really center the human experience in history. Right? I mean, we have our historians. We have excellent historians who can do that kind of work. Or we have people who are in some way, not quite journalists, but who are able to do the conversations on the ground and and frame those for a wider readership.
But I think that fiction does something that those works cannot do, which is to allow the reader to enter a world, you know, on its own ground and to really feel what it might be like to have been in that particular historical moment or historical historical experience. So I think, like Ward, my intent was to make you travel with the characters as opposed to feeling like you were outside of it and reading a report about the events—you know, that you would really want to see the outcome for the characters and want to be led by them, whatever those outcomes might be. I think that’s what fiction can do that no other genre can do quite as well.
I mean, certainly, I think memoir can do a great deal of that. But memoir is very particular to usually, you know, one individual’s experience or in the case of the Danticat memoir that I mentioned earlier, you know, it only can cover a few lives. I think with fiction, you can do. . . . It’s much more pliable, right? Because even though memoir utilizes some aspects of fiction to tell the story of a period or of a person, fiction really allows you to go into so many places that . . . that, you know, that you can’t really render with as much flexibility when you’re doing memoir or journalism.
And this is not to say, you know, that in What Storm, What Thunder , I didn’t do my due diligence of checking facts and rechecking, you know, doing some research, sometimes after the fact. You know, writing a character and then checking, you know, is this what would really have happened, for example, with a little boy, you know, the eleven-year-old boy Jonas, who goes for an amputation? And I did more research. I always knew that he would go through this experience, but I did more research after the fact to make sure that the medical information was correct. You know? But it’s very, you know, would have been one thing to write a sort of academic journalistic account of a child who really did go through this experience. It’s another thing to make you see or feel that experience through that child’s own eyes and perspectives. And I think the fictional account allows you to to feel more and to sympathize more and perhaps maybe to emphasize.
Kendra: That is incredibly thought provoking.
Myriam: But, you know, could I add something, Kendra?
Kendra: Oh, yes, please.
Myriam: Because my, okay, because my thought. . . . My other thought as, you know, as I’m thinking about your question is, you know, why did I write this book in this way? And you asked the earlier question about the ten voices. Part of the challenge in writing about the earthquake and writing about Haiti more generally is that there are so many misconceptions about Haiti as a place, as a place with a complex history, and as a place where there is a great deal of suffering. So there’s a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings around what Haiti is, how Haitians live their lives or experience their own culture or their own country.
And part of my challenge in this novel was to humanize the Haitian experience for the reader and to make them see Haiti in a different way if they had any of those preconceptions in mind. And so that also, I think, is what fiction can do, which is to really plunge you underwater in the most positive of ways, even when it’s troubling, you know, so that—troubling in the sense that some of these characters go through harrowing experiences, but you’re willing to follow them there because you believe in their humanity. And I think that this is something in terms of a general discourse around Haiti that has been lost over time.
And so I think that’s why, you know, like Ward, I wanted this to be a very intimate experience for the reader, one that if you chose to enter this novel and you stayed with the characters—you were willing not to look away from, not to look away from the disaster and its experience—understanding that real people went through this, people like you and I, and some . . . not everyone survived. And . . . and even those who survived physically may not have survived emotionally or psychologically or are doing so with difficulty. And to have empathy and understanding for that in the larger context of what Haiti represents in the hemisphere or vis-a-vis the United States and so on.